Shockumentaries Volume 1
By: Julian on April 6, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Blue Underground (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 4:3. English DD 1.0, Italian DD 1.0. English Subtitles. 310 minutes
The Movie
Director: Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi & Paulo Cavara
Country: Italy
Year: 1962/1963
More… than the greatest love the world… has known…

Thus was unleashed Mondo Cane, the warped labour of love of three documentarians who, sick to death of the typical utopian ideals instilled by those of similar stock, set out to create a groundbreaking exercise that would serve as the 'anti-documentary' or, as it had come to be known, the Shockumentary. Mondo Cane would prove so groundbreaking that it single-handedly sparked an entire sub genre that skirted the dubious line of documentary and exploitation, and were known simply as Mondo films, with Cavara, Jacopetti and Prosperi's original classic as their namesake. Mondo Cane struck up a decade-plus long partnership between Jacopetti and Prosperi (Cavara soon bowed out after an inferior follow-up film Women of the World) and simultaneously made the duo among the most revered and reviled filmmakers operating in Italian genre cinema. It also made the career of composer Riz Ortolani, who was nominated for an Oscar (alongside Nino Oliviero and Norman Newell) for the classic More, one of the era's most popular and lasting songs.

Mondo Cane is essentially a series of scenes captured throughout the world that showcases macabre cultural behaviour and rituals, bizarre religious rites and, in particular, the human treatment of animals, in which the film's most disturbing footage takes place. The film begins with the harrowing images of a mangy dog being led past a kennel of angry, barking canines, only to be thrown in and left to die. Immediately this sets the tone of the film – dire. Animal carnage plays a pivotal role in Mondo Cane. Particularly heart-wrenching is that of a large female sea turtle who, having just laid her eggs, is unable to return to water due to the disorienting affects of radioactive testing that had gone on in the area years prior; the doomed animal is left to die in the sand, with seagulls taking the pickings. The trio also bring their focus to cultural differences and fallacies, both in the Western world as well as the East, and remote tribal nations. The film concludes with footage of a cargo cult of Papua New Guinea. Named after the cargo planes unwitting indigenous people see at Port Moresby's airport, groups of natives set up camp in order to lure planes down to a makeshift airstrip believing they have been sent from heaven but are merely commandeered by thieving white people. This segment perfectly exemplifies what Cavara, Jacopetti and Prosperi were trying to achieve with the film – not merely bringing a voyeur's attention to strange cultural happenings, but to provide specific agnostic insight into religion and its inner workings. Stefano Sibaldi's Italian narration is vastly different to its English translation, and captures the mood of Mondo Cane especially well.

After its initial release, Mondo Cane went on to win the prestigious David di Donatello award (the Italian equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Production and was nominated for the Cannes Palme D'Or. This film laid the groundwork not only for other such pictures of its stock (Africa Addio; Savage Man, Savage Beast et al) but also the hugely successful Italo-cannibal craze of the seventies and eighties, which expounded on the Mondo's claims to authenticity. Thus, it begs the question: if Mondo Cane was more appreciated by the higher echelons of filmgoers (that said; many considered the picture as having risen above the typical exploitation vibe despite being rendered to screening primarily at grindhouses upon its initial release), would Italian exploitation have flourished in the seventies or eighties, or even developed altogether? Certainly not on such an exploitative scale, and Mondo Cane's 'legitimate' success would have certainly stunted the growth of the Grindhouse and Euroshock pictures. 

However one crucial argument regarding Mondo Cane remains. Is it in fact a work procured by shameless xenophobes, or did it just transcend the politically correct viewpoints of the era? This is a question addressed by innumerable critics; the more conservative of the bunch readily damning Cavara, Jacopetti and Prosperi as being a trio of total misanthropes (perhaps exemplified in Jacopetti and Prosperi's later work Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom), while liberalists would applaud the filmmakers for being the eyes into an unknown world.  It would be fair to call Mondo Cane a groundbreaking piece of avant-garde cinema – its focus on the culturally diverse (borderline macabre) was utterly unique and gave birth to present day pop culture microcosms such as hardcore porn reels and, later, downloadable video clips; voyeuristic reality television and the morally bankrupt likes of Regardless of its somewhat dubious impact, Mondo Cane is certainly a classic, and has become an essential relic of twentieth century cinema.

The second Mondo picture by Jacopetti and Prosperi (Cavara wasn't involved in this) is the 'official' sequel to their seminal 1962 original, Mondo Cane 2. Originally titled Mondo Pazzo ('Crazy World'), Jacopetti disowns the film in Godfathers of Mondo (the documentary on the duo in the Shockumentaries Volume 2 set). It's quizzical as to why; Mondo Cane 2 is, admittedly, more of the same (and leftovers from the original were used here), but it isn't the work of shameless exploitation that Jacopetti purports it to be. Actually, there's a more sinister vein running through this work, a vein that Jacopetti and Prosperi only really tapped in earnest with Africa Addio, and that is the political critiquing. About thirty-five minutes into the picture, we are taken to Saigon, where South Vietnamese soldiers bash senseless a mob of agitated protesters. The next scene recreates (or, rather, fakes and tries to pass off as real) one of the most iconic and disturbing images of the Vietnam War – the Buddhist monk's immolation. It's a nauseating scene regardless of its authenticity. We continue on more dire territory, and we see the grisly tools of torture that slave drivers used on young African children.

The animal carnage and religious oddity that was so prevalent in the original makes many appearances here, but it tends to adopt a real sideshow feel about it. See! Portuguese Christian fundamentals (there really is no other word for them) lick the steps of a Church until their tongue is rendered to bloody flesh. See! A mob of churchgoers go into fits of unstoppable hysterics. See! A dog get its vocal cords removed so vets are able to operate on them in peace. It lacks the compassion and journalistic touch that Jacopetti and Prosperi favoured in Mondo Cane, and used in Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom, which led to the film being dismissed as a work of exploitation. Also of note is the absence of Riz Ortolani on scoring duties. Ortolani passed on the project owing to the fact that it seemed to serve the sole purpose of earning money on the back of the original. Nino Oliviero composed the music for the film, which is fairly good (of particular note is the ominous scoring to the scenes in Vietnam). The score was conducted by Bruno Nicolai, who worked on the music to a number of Italian exploitation films including Caligula and Salon Kitty. Ortolani and Oliviero re-collaborated on Jacopetti and Prosperi's next picture, Women of the World.

While Mondo Cane 2 is a heavily flawed picture, it certainly isn't as bad as what many critics, and both Ortolani and Jacopetti themselves, make out. It's a decent sequel to one of the greatest documentaries of our modern time, but it often veers into the exploitative sideshow camp that many of its successors fell into.

The third film in the set, Women of the World, is vaguely embarrassing – think of it as a Russ Meyer picture, but with less of a focus on big tits and sex, going under the pretentious moniker of legitimacy. There's little to get excited about in this picture, which reunites Cavara, Jacopetti and Prosperi. However, you've got to hand it to the trio – given the enormous success of both instalments in the Mondo Cane films and the rip-offs that followed, the directors didn't turn out a blatant rehash of their prior work, taking the most financially comfortable route. It's an ill-conceived film, but at least it's not Mondo Cane 3 – though there are a few times that Cavara, Jacopetti and Prosperi fall back on what's comfortable, particularly during an upsetting scene in which a tribe of Gulf of Carpentarian aboriginals cruelly haul in a dugong and leave it to die on the beach (the narrator mistakes the aboriginals for 'convicts', a jaw-dropping comment in light of our present political situation). 

Big Man Ortolani returns to collaborate with Oliviero for Women of the World's music, which is primarily comprised of a jazzy riff that is pretty cool, but probably his weakest work on the Jacopetti and Prosperi Mondo pictures. Benito Frattari is DOP here with Antonio Climati, his first Jacopetti film. Climati went on to lens Africa Addio (which he nearly paid for with his life) and Addio Zio Tom, as well as directing a number of Prosperi-produced Mondo pictures himself (among the best of these is Savage Man, Savage Beast). When the going gets tough in a Jacopetti and Prosperi Mondo film, the tough bask in the fine aesthetic often produced by competent cinematography. But not even the mastery of Climati and Frattari can save this, and they commit a cameraman's cardinal sin – too much screen time to ugly chicks.

Fraught, and about as dull as your senile grandmother's tea party, Women of the World is the only blight in the Jacopetti and Prosperi canon.
All three films are presented in full-frame 1:33:1.

Mondo Cane looks relatively sharp for a film of its age. Here and there there are muted colour schemes and grain, but this is definitely the definitive release for Jacopetti, Prosperi and Cavara's debut.

Benito Frattari lensed both Mondo Cane and its sequel. His work on both films is varying in scale – epic when the scene requires it, but Frattari is just as apt in getting right up close to the action. He's an immensely talented cinematographer, however his skills are best showcased in Jacopetti and Prosperi's 1971 picture Addio Zio Tom. Cavara, Jacopetti and Prosperi are all credited as cinematographers on Women of the World, which is equally well-photographed.
All three films are provided with two audio tracks – Italian and English – in Dolby mono, with optional English subtitles. The sound is pretty fantastic all around.

Mondo Cane
showcases what an immense musical talent Riz Ortolani is and, as far as Italian film composers go, I rank him alongside the great Ennio Morricone. Ortolani is probably as close as Euro-exploitation got to the Oscar stage in its Golden Age, and his award snub for More was an oversight on par with Scorsese losing to Costner, and Pulp Fiction losing to Forrest Gump. The bigwigs at the Academy should still be ashamed of themselves.
Extra Features
On the Mondo Cane disc, the extras included are the standard theatrical trailers, TV spots and image galleries. More interestingly are location stills by cinematographer Benito Frattari and a retrospective on the Mondo cycle by film critic David Flint.

There's pretty much nillo on the Mondo Cane 2 and Women of the World discs – theatrical trailers, TV spots and poster and still galleries are all.

Shockumentaries Volume 1 is the first part in Blue Underground's 'Shockumentaries' series. Volume 2 contains Africa Addio, Goodbye Uncle Tom and the Jacopetti/Prosperi retrospective Godfathers of Mondo, and Shockumentary Extreme Edition contains the directors' cuts of Africa Addio and Goodbye Uncle Tom. All eight films can be found in Blue Underground's Mondo Cane Collection, which seems to be still in print and has a limited run of 10,000.
The Verdict
Blue Underground are to be commended on the effort they put into these releases, showing once more why they are one of the best distributors of quality cult in existence. As for the films, they're a mixed bag this time around – Mondo Cane is an undoubted masterpiece, one of the finest films of its unique ilk. Part two is interesting in the sense that it displays more of Jacopetti and Prosperi's future politically driven direction, coupled with the duo's shocking eye for death and destruction. But the women ruin it. As per usual.
Movie Score
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